How do you think this book will be received?
One of the ironies of Venice is that, whereas eighteen million tourists stream through each year, when it comes to scholarship there is really a small-town protectiveness and defensiveness that characterises opinions. I have experienced such attitudes before, as for example when I organised a big international conference at Harvard University concerned with restoring the Mesopotamian marshes of southern Iraq that had been destroyed by Saddam Hussein. There, amongst the donor countries involved in the work, the British were critical of the Americans, who in turn were critical of the Japanese, who were critical of the Canadians, etc., with the Iraqis having little time for any such petulant infighting. Because shades of this same sort of territoriality pervade all restoration work in Venice undertaken by foreigners, and because even amongst this group I am an outside observer (notwithstanding having lived and taught there for three summers), I expect some may be critical of my efforts. However, I believe that the strength of the more objective, outsider viewpoint will offset any nuances that I may have missed, simplified or perhaps reported incorrectly in my overview in these pages. Beneficial views are often best from a distant perspective. In contrast, frequently I have sat in meetings in Venice wherein one group of closely involved and otherwise well-meaning individuals has seemed to be blindly and unreasonably critical of those from another such group despite all working toward what, to outside eyes, appears to be a common and compatible goal.
Then there is the issue about which I am very conscious: namely that despite being a one-time, working resident of Venice, I am a British and Canadian citizen. Venetians are always angry when other Italians are critical of their city, just as Italians are of northern (Anglo-Saxon) European or other – in their minds, meddling – internationals who are critical of what they, the Italians, consider to be an issue of domestic sovereignty. Interestingly, often the harshest criticism about any book on Venice written by an outsider (no matter how perceptive or well written these may be, as for example, works by J. Berendt or J. Martin), come from those onetime foreigners who now live in Venice and who can cavalierly dismiss such a book simply on the basis that no matter how good the research might be, because the author either does not live there fulltime, nor speaks fluent Italian, much less Veneziano, then the book must have little merit. (Venice is really a quite a funny place where affectations still pervade society to a degree matched by few other locales. It is, for example, the only place I have been where it is possible to be at a social gathering and see expat Brits decked out in cravats and white shoes or elbow gloves and cigarette holders, seemingly as if they had just walked off the set from the latest Hercule Poirot film).
Then there are the ardent Venetophiles, those whose near obsession with all things Venice enables them to dissect every movie or novel about Venice, frame/page by frame/page, to see if it were possible, for example, for the protagonist to be able to get from one location to the next in the amount of time implied by the film/book’s narrative (recently, for example, questions have been raised about how is it possible for Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp in The Tourist to walk out onto the balcony from their room in the Hotel Danieli on the Riva degli Schiavoni and be able to gaze out at the Ponte Rialto, much less to have one disembark by boat at the Venice airport while the other drives off by water-taxi immediately into the Guideca Canal). My defence is that the present book is very much a primer, condensing and reinterpreting the copious work from a legion of dedicated Venetian scholars who conducted the primary research. And as with any such synthesising compilation, it is certain that mistakes and omissions do exist. And given the predilection of Venetophiles to point out such mistakes, I expect to receive more than one letter of correction in this regard.
So in the end, I think that if any critic is looking for errors in a few of the details, s/he may very well find them. I only hope that I have done justice to the complexity of the entirety, this being the first holistic account of Venice’s myriad environmental and social problems.
You paint a dire picture for the environmental future of Venice and its lagoon. How do these problems compare with those experienced by other areas?
Although certainly subjected to being severely poked and prodded, the good news is that the Venice Lagoon is not in danger of being destroyed any time soon. And of course this is something that cannot be said of several other equally prominent and unique water bodies around the world such as Lake Chad, the Aral Sea, the Mesopotamian marshes, the Dead Sea, the Azraq Oasis, the Tonle Sap Great Lake, etc., the very existence of some of which into the next century seems doubtful. So in this regard, the future of the Venice Lagoon looks comparatively favourable. However, when one examines other important wetland systems within the developed world, such a conclusion may be overly optimistic. Within Europe, for example, the Norfolk Broads and the Carmargue are both in much better shape than the Venice Lagoon in terms of their present ecosystem integrity as well as having in place management systems to preserve and, if necessary, restore that integrity should the need arise. Even within Italy there are worlds of difference in the effective way in which everything from environmental protection to ecotourism operates in the nearby Po Delta lagoon and marshes compared with the Venice Lagoon. And in North America, the management of the ecocultural wetlandscapes of the Everglades and the Bay of Fundy marshlands, for example (both nominated as new natural wonders of the world), eclipse anything currently in place in the Venice Lagoon. And speaking of Venices, whereas the world’s second-most touristed city, Las Vegas, shamelessly offers up a simulacrum of the real Venice in the form of one of its casinos, the remarkable way in which that American city comprehensively planned and now manages its own nearby wetlands (as I have written about in Landscape Restoration Design for Recreation and Ecotourism) is a model that the real Venice would do well reciprocally to copy. Then there is the wonderful public education program about the Ballona Wetlands in Los Angeles, located near Venice Beach (see my edited volume Facilitating Watershed Management: Fostering Awareness and Stewardship) which again could serve as a model for how the original Venice could and should approach its own environmental education. And finally there is the meritorious example of Boston, (to whose nineteenth-century Venetophiles such as John Singer Sargent and Henry James we owe much for the way we appreciate Venice) where the legacy of that sister-city infatuation is still present today in the form of Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Venetian-styled palazzo-home-now-museum – with its Titian and Singer Sargent paintings, etc. – and real Venetian gondolas that can be hired on the Charles River (for a fraction of the cost of those back in Venice). Indeed, Boston’s Charles River Watershed Association is truly one of the world’s most successful such entities (as described in my Introduction to Watershed Development: Understanding and Managing the Impacts of Sprawl).
In short, there are lots of Venetian-affiliated locations around the world that do a much better job of preserving and restoring ecosystem integrity that the original Venice. Here are two further examples. Personally I have worked on the sustainability and land-use plans for two world-class cities that interestingly are physically or conceptually linked to Venice while at the same time offering many valuable lessons for how the one-time Queen of the Adriatic might polish up and regain her now all-too-tattered throne. Firstly, Hangzhou is the city where Venetian Marco Polo ended up and today it and its famous aquatic jewel, the West Lake, is one of the most historic and touristed sites in all of China. As part of helping the City plan future development in order to accommodate the projected influx of millions of largely domestic tourists, we – H Harvard University students and faculty – presented city administrators with a series of alternative scenarios under the banner of “nature and humanity in harmony”, a title that would certainly be incongruous if not outright oxymoronic for Venice. Secondly, in today’s world, the city-state that most closely matches the wealth, mercantile influence, and boundless riches of historic Venice and its Veneto region is Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates. As part of an international, award-winning team, our group provided the Capital City with an urban framework vision in which to accommodate the enormous increase in population that is expected over the next several decades. And completely unlike the situation in Venice’s overall city planning today, the vision for Abu Dhabi, as explained near the beginning of the final report, explicitly states “The environmental framework deserves special mention as it helped shape the Plan at all stages and was particularly influential throughout the integrative work. Urban growth, ecological stability and the potential for regeneration have been reconciled in this sensitive ecological context.” Further, preliminary planning documents actually go out of their way specifically to mention Venice and its ambivalent (at best) relationship with its own surrounding islands as an example of exactly just what Abu Dhabi should avoid with respect to its own archipelago (contrasted with other more positive examples such as Boston or Auckland harbours which should be emulated).
It is worth noting that both these examples of pragmatic urban design and planning for Hangzhou and Abu Dhabi (how successful they will be of course will depend on how and to what degree our recommendations are actually implemented) are remarkably different from the more fanciful rococo-renderings offered in a recent international design competition for Venice and its lagoon as mentioned and referenced in the text of the present book. Sadly, it appears that for much of the international design world, Venice still suffers from Robert Thayer’s critique of the profession in his seminal work, Gray World, Green Heart: Technology, Nature, and the Sustainable Landscape, wherein much of design remains “dominated by the creation of pleasant, illusory places which either give token service to environmental stewardship values, or ignore them altogether.”
So the bottom line is that whereas architects will continue to salivate over the rich heritage of Venice’s built environment, sustainability planners and urban ecologists will continue to look upon the recent history of planning for the city and its lagoon with derision. The encouraging news is that sustainability is finally being recognised by a dedicated cadre of independent-minded city planners in Venice who are now actively challenging the hitherto accepted mindset. However, their voices and influence still remain underappreciated and little acted upon.
You provide an overview of the strong opinions held by those either supportive or opposed to the MOSE project and use the expression “gate sitters” in reference to individuals whom are undecided. Which side of the floodgates do you fall on?
MOSE has been the most contentious project undertaken in Venice in several centuries. For the overview presented in this book, I did attempt to maintain a semblance of neutrality in my reportage of the various points of views of players on both sides of the debate, but as with most things MOSE, objectivity is easier invoked than realised. By examining MOSE through a lens of my own experience in participating in watershed management, environmental restoration, and urban planning projects around the world, I am forced to adjudicate the flood barriers from three viewpoints: justification, process, and product, and how they respond to the triple foundations of sustainability in terms of fostering ecology, economy, and social capital.
I agree with almost all outside observers that some form of physical separation of the City of Venice from the Adriatic is ultimately the only way to ensure that Venice will be protected from the discomforts and ravages of acqua altae, and that at least in the short-term (until rising sea levels catch up) MOSE will adequately accomplish this. As for the big rallying cry from the green community concerning the perceived threats to the lagoon, I remain unconvinced that the flood barriers will exact an irreparable toll., relative to all the other impacts on the wetland environment, We have to realise that the lagoon is a completely artificial environment that, had it not been for human tinkering, would long since have disappeared through completely natural processes. Does this make the lagoon any less valuable? Of course not. But it does, or it should, provide a perspective that is more accommodating to human management. The dichotomisation with which we portray our world – nature there, culture here – is incorrect and extremely damaging. More than anything, environmental restoration is an undertaking that demonstrates the seamless blending of the two; i.e. human hands rebuilding and protecting what human minds have reimagined and decided is worth protecting. And MOSE will do this. Should MOSE do this? That is quite another question altogether. Here I am very sympathetic to those many critics who believe the mobile gates to be an unnecessary waste of money. MOSE, at the present time, really does make little or no economic sense relative to the infrequent and minor floods that paralyse the city. It is easy to champion any of a number of more meritorious targets, the funding of which would have much better served the needs of the populace, than an investment in the mobile flood barriers. As mentioned above, eventually some form of separation between lagoon and sea will have to be put in place. In my mind, other, cheaper options that have been posited would have been just as effective at this. Of course, the ecology of the lagoon might or would probably change. However, I remain unconvinced that the new ecology that would become established would be in any way a substandard ecology or one that would be markedly different from that which might have developed naturally. It must be remembered that MOSE is the compromise solution to the intractable problem of needing to both protect the historic city and lagoon at the same time as not hindering the revenue-making activities of the port of Marghera. Disregard and do away with the latter, and the solutions to the former become many, and the need for the super-expensive MOSE vanishes.
Finally, regardless of the efficacy of the final product or its perceived need, it is the process through which the decisions were made that is ultimately what is so damming about the entire flood barriers story. MOSE will long be studied as perhaps the hallmark example of how not to undertake complex environmental planning. And in this regard, as a scholar of and participant in many such projects around the world that specifically rely upon civic engagement for their successful implementation, I am in complete agreement with every harsh criticism that has been heaped on MOSE by the marginalised, disenfranchised citizens of Venice.
So in summary, I question the particular need for MOSE, condemn the manner in which it was brought to fruition, but now that it is a fait accompli, am not unduly worried about its operation.
The case is made that Venice is more in danger of sinking beneath a flood of tourists than a flood of waters. If MOSE can control the latter, what in your opinion can be done to effectively manage the former?
This is the issue that lies at the crux of saving Venice. Finally, the vestigial rumblings made over the years by academics and planners about the city’s inexorable descent into some sort of tourist-hell has captured the public attention through generating a clarion call to do something concrete about the issue. In November 2010, as this book was going to press, a group of local protestors gathered in Venice to hand out stylised Disneyesque tourist maps and free “entrance tickets” as they cut a fake ribbon stretched across the Piazzale Roma in a mock inaugural opening of the new theme park called “Veniceland”. All staged as a citizen provocation against city officials catering solely to tourists.
For years observers have suggested that Venice put in place some form of entrance tariff that would support the sustainability measures needed to preserve a vibrant, living city. The difficulty in applying such a measure has been two-fold. Firstly, there is the pragmatic problem. Just to whom exactly should such an entrance fee be applied? Certainly those few remaining residents would be exempt. But how about those from neighbouring Mestre who work in Venice? Or those from the surrounding Veneto region? How about all Italians? And if them, why not all EU members? (i.e. make those rich Americans and Japanese pay, not us Europeans), etc. Many are the conversations with tourism and planning officials through which I have sat, arguing around and around about who should have to pay for what. Is it fair to charge the hordes disembarking in their thousands from the cruise ships yet not charge the millions who arrive by train or plane? Is it reasonable to levy a bed tax on hotels in Venice when so many sleep in cruise ship berths or are day-trippers from the mainland where hotels are cheaper? etc.
And then there is the second, philosophical problem. Some critics have argued against imposition of such an entrance fee as it would do a disservice through reinforcing the idea that Venice is nothing more than a theme park. One doesn’t pay a fee to enter into the Lake District National Park, for example, because it is a real place where real people live. Why should Venice be any different?
Well the difference is that the Venice of today really has more in common with other rarified shrines of rampant consumerism such as Dubai, Singapore, the US Virgin Islands, etc. than it does with the Lake District. And if a shopper expects to encounter entertainment while indulging in his/her hobby/addiction, why not charge admission some argue. We pay this willingly when we visit Disneyland, so why not Veniceland?
And so, getting back to the original question: What do I think of all this? Here are some answers in the form of further questions. First, what would happen if Venice and its lagoon were designated as a national park to enter which non-residents are charged admission and in which the locals need not fear that they would be treated as circus sideshow freaks? When one visits Banff National Park, for instance, one pays a fee. Yet thousands live there in the City of Banff surrounded by the wonderful scenery of the Canadian Rockies. Many are the environmental and building restrictions that come into play when an area obtains such protected status, as anyone knows who lives in the Lake District. Some have proposed that Venice would benefit greatly from such draconian restrictions. Certainly such spectacles as the large rock concerts in St. Mark’s Square would disappear as would the egregious advertising now plaguing the city.
Second, what would happen if building ownership were tied to residency? In other words, one as a non-local is not permitted to buy property in the city unless one spends a certain amount of time there, paying taxes for services that one needs to live? And if you have consequent difficulty in finding vegetables or a hardware store or a pharmacy, as you certainly will, then maybe you will support such with your tax euros. Other, rarefied and threatened places in the world have in place all kinds of restrictions hampering foreign or non-resident ownership.
But back to reality; where do things stand today? Finally, in October 2010, the Italian government drew up a draft plan that would allow Venetian authorities to charge an entrance tax for all visitors arriving via air, train and cruise ship. At even only a meagre single euro per tourist such a fee would generate enormous revenue to allow the city to maintain its infrastructure, build subsidised housing for locals, keep schools open, etc. Good on paper; we will wait to see whether it will ever be implemented.
You certainly don’t seem to have too high an opinion of the type of tourist visiting Venice. Is this entirely fair?
I’m afraid that it’s more than fair. Einstein’s blackly humorous observation that there are two things that are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and that he wasn’t sure about the former, is certainly apt when describing the bulk of tourists who visit Venice, as I think the anecdotes I present in this book clearly illustrate. Really, imagine disembarking from a ship and not even knowing if Venice is in Italy for goodness sakes! Where I am unfair is the implication that it is merely those tourists who visit Venice who are shallow. The reality is that mass tourism, regardless of where it is – and there is no polite way to say this – caters to the intellectually lowest common denominator. Ample evidence of this can be found on many internet sites where incredulous tourist guides take great joy in sharing stories about the egregious ignorance of their clientele. One of my own particular favorites concerns a tourist who was part of a large guided group walking the so-called “Freedom Trail” in downtown Boston, Massachusetts – a red line, painted on the sidewalks that conveniently links up half a dozen historic sites important for the American Revolution – and who was overheard to say: “No wonder we rebelled against the English, if they forced us walk along this stupid red line.” What is abjectly unfair is that far too many people have far more money than they have brain cells. For every hundred thousand mindless, middle-aged cruise ship passengers or vacuous, partying students who can afford to visit Venice, and where the charms and history of this most remarkable of cities is completely wasted upon them, there is that sensitive young dreamer from the Yorkshire moors or the Canadian prairies who may never have the financial wherewithal to be able to experience the city outside of her or his imagination or readings.
You present ample evidence from those who are highly critical of the capability of Italians in general and Venetians in particular for solving Venice’s problems. In your opinion, is this harsh criticism justified?
The answer here is both a yes and a no: yes, if one examines in isolation their oft-times mismanaged and sometimes corrupt responses to solving Venice’s problems (criticisms it must be stated that arise most forcefully from those most in the know, namely the Italians and Venetians themselves, and thus cannot be simply dismissed as being due to prejudicial northern Anglo-Saxon meddlers); but then no, if one assumes from this that such limitations are somehow the sole purview of Venetians and Italians. In short, when one reviews the evidence it is impossible not to be critical of how the locals have dealt and are continuing to deal with the socio-environmental landscape of Venice. On the other hand, it is wise to keep in mind the cautions about those living in glass houses.
It is easy to find examples of mismanagement and dishonesty elsewhere in the developed world, as for example, recently the inflated expenses of UK politicians and the economic problems of Greece and the other “PIIGS” EU nations; and who can forget the charade of the 2000 US election when ex-president Jimmy Carter volunteered his African democracy observers to help sort the mess out, etc. In fact, had this instead been a jeremiad about the US Gulf Coast, for example, almost all the criticisms of the Italian mismanagement of Venice cited here could quite easily be applied there as well: the fiasco in dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the rampant destruction of the protective coastal wetlands that exacerbated the disaster for the benefit of, among others, the oil industry, and more recently just how that oil industry in the form of BP and its partners paid the region back with an enormous spill that severely damaged locations such as…wait for it…Venice (in this case, that one located in Louisiana). Further, in the Preface I offer examples of environmental mismanagement by other nationalities that rival or exceed that of Venetians and Italians.
However, it must be admitted that there is one significant difference between the situation in Italy and that in many of these other examples, namely the inescapably greater role played by organised crime in the former. This is widely believed to be a defining and debilitating fact of life in modern Italy (Donna Leon’s hugely popular novels, for example, must be unique in the genre of crime fiction in that although, as is customary protocol, the culprits are always identified by the end of the book, as often as not they escape justice). This has led some to suggest that all decision-making in Venice has been severely compromised as a result of these pervasive influences. But again even here it must be acknowledged that, in terms of a conflated system of governance and commerce built on rampant criminality and impunity, there are conditions today in many countries of the world that probably supersede anything untoward that goes on in either Venice or Rome.
Is public participation really the key to solving Venice’s problems? And how important are locals to Venice after all?
It is certainly a key. This is a subject on which I elaborate at great length in my Handbook of Regenerative Landscape Design, particularly in relation to discussing such approaches to civic engagement as the Local Agenda 21 Protocol which originated at the 1992 Rio sustainability meeting, the aforementioned alternative futures scenario studies for such places as Hangzhou but also nearby Padua among other locales, the new emerging socio-scientific discipline of restoration design that balances the aspirations of people and nature, and the promising Vision for Venice framework from the International Institute for the Urban Environment in the Netherlands. In addition, in the foreword to that book, sustainability strategist Robert Abbott posits the Imagine Calgary case study as a useful model for Venice to adopt in terms of making its citizens visible.
All these examples are based on the supposition that there are people who live in Venice, and that it is important to hear, acknowledge, and then act upon their wishes for their city. But what happens if the point is reached when there are, or almost are, no longer any Venetian residents? At what point do the wishes of 18 million (and growing) visitors trump those of the 40,000 (and decreasing) locals? Some years ago the World Wildlife Fund made the difficult decision that, because of such low numbers, it was not in the best interests of the organisation in terms of their limited manpower and financial resources to spend any more time and effort trying to save a particular species of rhinoceros. At what point then, unless things turn around and trends are stopped or reversed, does someone make the same horrible decision here and say that there are, or effectively are, no more native Venetians who can be saved?
Before this particular endangered species of Venezia habitus is formally written off, however, it is worth noting that what makes certain landscapes truly memorable is that they genuinely are “ecocultural” constructs and amalgams. One’s fond memories of the English Lake District, for example, owe just as much to the presence of Ambleside and Keswick as they do to Derwentwater and Windermere. And similar can be said for other areas where humans live in “natural” parks such as the Adirondacks in New York State or Banff in the Canadian Rockies. And so, once again I answer a question with another question: would Venice still be Venice if there were no local Venetians living there?
The word “future” is used in the title for this book. Can you describe what the Venice of the future will look like, say one hundred years from now?
As my Harvard colleague and renowned expert on modeling alternative futures of rapidly changing landscapes and cities, Carl Steinitz, likes to quip, quoting Nils Bohr: “Prediction is difficult. Especially when it’s about the future.” Regardless of whether one is a pessimist or an optimist, the Venice of the future will look remarkably different from what it was like, say twenty years ago, when some readers of this book may have had the fortune to be able to first visit the city at a time when it was still a place of magic and mystery.
In one extreme scenario, as the pointedly alarmist subtitle to this book has it, the future of Venice will be “bleak” indeed. Italy at that distant time will be bankrupt, due to even more widespread corruption and financial mismanagement than today, and Venice (as well as Rome) will need to be sacrificed to tourism to provide revenue for the entire state (whose new capital will be Milan). In consequence, Venice at the start of the next century will be operated as the world’s most popular theme-park. Tourists, capped at about 50 million per year in order “to preserve the intimate experience” as the advertising will state it, will need to pre-book months or even years in advance and will be required to pay an exorbitant admission fee. However, it will always be possible to jump the queue with the appropriate amount of “baksheesh”. The only residents of the city will be interpretive, costumed actors and hotel staff. Outside, there will be daily spectacles and evening shows. Inside, there will be more shows and 24-hour shopping. Venice of the future will resemble Las Vegas of today. The lagoon will be cleaner of pollution than it is today but it will be freshwater, the MOSE gates long since having outlived their usefulness and been replaced with the much cheaper option of permanent earthen-dam closure to the progressively rising Adriatic. The latter will be due to the perpetual failure of the United States and China and the reneging of India to sign international protocols to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At certain times of the year, Venice will be empty of tourists and be used as a stage set for filming movies. Venetophiles, either those with sufficient funds to be able to gain admittance to the city or those many without such wherewithal, will still be able to savour their dreams of that bygone Venice of yore – the mysterious canals and crumbling palaces – through the ever popular industry of novels about the city. These will of course be perused on electronic readers, real books like this one having disappeared by the middle of the century. Equally popular, especially for the masses, will be high-tech video games in which one can vicariously experience the romanticism and allure of Venice as a historically layered palimpsest, lingering on whatever particular time period most attracts one’s fancy. Venice in the future will become the Antarctica of today: a distant place of imagination that most can never afford to visit but whom are nevertheless happy has been preserved. In the future, Venice will no longer be regarded as the city-cum-museum that some now envision the place, but rather as a sort of city-cum-relic. And like all such relics, the withered yet miraculously preserved remains of the city will by then have assumed a quasi-religious aura far exceeding their true worth.
That is one vision of the future. Alternative, not so bleak, futures are many. In all cases these will necessitate the adoption of severe, almost draconian, measures to stem the bipartite flows of people: those of the millions arriving annually, but even more importantly, those of the hundreds emigrating every year. This latter, more than anything else, is the key problem facing the city today. For a Venice without residents in situ is, in the end, no longer really Venice at all. Instead, it is masqued imposter, an impoverished simulacrum called Veniceland.
Back to the Venice of today. A couple of personal questions. In terms of tourism, what is the best thing you can recommend doing in Venice? And what is the most unusual thing you yourself have done?
This sounds harsh, but the best thing to do in Venice is to leave it, at least during those mid-day hours when it is swamped by the flood of tourists. There are many gems throughout the lagoon to which one can flee the crowds, though even here one needs to be increasingly more imaginative, As recently as only several years ago, a visit to Torcello was a peaceful reprieve. Here one could see the remarkable Romanesque church, have a high-quality lunch, and wander about this quiet island of ghosts and nostalgia. Nowadays, it seems, however, that even sitting in the shade there is ruined by the din of boom-box toting tourists. So one must go elsewhere. The best place is the island of San Erasmo. Here one can spend a wonderful day enjoying a cacophony of birds while walking along empty coastlines and agricultural fields, canals, and wetlands. Gelato and drinks cost a fraction of what they do back in historic Venice. Shopkeepers are friendly and particularly interested in any tourist who would go to the trouble to visit their island. Dogs here are real dogs: the big, floppy-eared, happy rural kind, not the tiny manicured, tucked-under-the-arm while shopping, rat-dogs that have replaced cats in recent years in Venice. If one’s ear is discriminating enough, it is even possible to discern the Venetian dialect among locals. And yes, these are real locals who actually live and farm here. Finally, it is even possible to find a spot secluded enough to throw off one’s walking apparel and go for a skinny dip in the relatively clean waters in this part of the lagoon.
After time spent in the centre of Venice where water is the dominating presence, it becomes very hard, even amongst those who know better, to resist the temptation to take a Byronesque plunge into some canal to cool down from the often oppressive heat and humidity. And for that reason, most people, locals and tourists alike, head over to the Lido for a swim. This is the worst thing one can do on the Lido. The doggy public beach is filled with unsightly cigarette butts and middle-aged butts squeezed into Speedo swimsuits. Far better is to stroll about the forest in the incredibly atmospheric Jewish cemetery located on the island. One does not need to know anything about the history of Venice’s ghetto, the world’s first, to appreciate the beauty and serenity of the place. With its omnipresent feelings of doom and death, Venice has always struck me as the oddest of places to go for a honeymoon or wedding reunion. Nevertheless, it is possible to have a romantic time in modern Venice, even in the summer. In the historic centre of Venice itself, the best thing to do is to break out of and escape from the so-called “Bermuda shorts triangle” area and simply go wandering about the still relatively quiet neighbourhoods that, against all odds, do still exist. Put away your maps and walk until you find a quiet canal and ponte. Sit down beside the hump-backed bridge and have a picnic while watching and becoming mesmerised by the reflections of light cast upward from the water onto the convenient screen made by the underside of the bridge. And if you’ve been fortunate to have found the right neighbourhood and are there at the right time of late afternoon or early evening, it is actually possible that you can enjoy yourselves in complete privacy for half an hour or so, the only sound being the lapping water at your feet and perhaps the faint music from a radio in someone’s apartment above you, before the next local strolls past.
Having had the luxury of time as a result of living there, I’ve certainly done many unusual things in Venice, two perhaps more so in this regard than others. Once, in homage to the difficult passage made by more and more modern Venetians in terms of their leaving the historic city and moving to Mestre on the mainland, I walked there. The four-kilometre walk across the causeway was fine, as there is a sidewalk beside the rushing traffic, and with headphones on, I could almost forget about the trucks, cars, and tour buses, and enjoy the views of the lagoon. Once the mainland is reached, however, the verge disappears and one is forced to scramble through bush-filled ditches and squeeze underneath bridges within meters of the dangerous vehicular traffic. Having at that time recently survived a two-hundred-kilometre walking pilgrimage to Assisi, I was well familiar with the predatory zeal with which Italian drivers regard their pedestrian prey. So the walk from the lagoon edge to the Mestre train station was terrifying beyond belief.
On a much more positive note, the second most unusual thing I have done in Venice was also an homage. Friends and I collected some water from the canal outside my apartment and went to the cemetery island of San Michele. There we sought out and found the grave of Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky and in between readings of our favourite of his immortal words from his wonderful book about Venice, Watermark, we poured Venetian water over his gravesite, anointing as it were, his mortal remains.
With publication of this socio-environmental synthesis and summary, are you done with Venice?
For a scholar, Venice, even more so than Paris, to steal from Hemingway, is a movable feast. Once bitten into and savoured, it quickly and easily becomes incorporated into one’s very body and spirit. And it seems that more than any other group, it is English speakers who are particularly vulnerable to succumbing to the lure and adding to the lore of Venice. More English-language books for instance have probably been written about Venice than any city excepting London and New York, which are the two most populous English-speaking cities. Think about that for a moment and one begins to realise just how odd it really is; i.e. that the third-most popular city in our mother prose is in a country where English is not the native language.
While living in Venice I restricted myself to reading only books about the city and was soon struck by just how good a job many novelists were doing at portraying both the manifest problems and the potential solutions. The results of some of that survey are included as the running foot-quotes in the present book. However, those quotations are only a small fraction of the many, some that I collected extending in length for several paragraphs. As such, at some time in the future I would like to return to those readings and more thoroughly investigate just how fiction has portrayed the socio-environmental milieu of the city. And in a related literary vein, I am also intrigued by the role that Venice has played in the modern crime novel and would like to explore that more as well. If one adds up the body count from more than a century of such crimson prose I’m sure that there is simply not enough room within the city’s canals to stockpile all those unfortunate victims of this literary imagination.